Ottawa, I recently discovered, is a helluva long way from Toronto. This is the story about how I got there, having utilized five different modes of transport, only to end up spending two nights in jail.
Last weekend, the Ginge and I were invited by some of her colleagues to go white-water rafting in the great Canadian outdoors. A much need break, and perfectly in line with our philosophy that unexpected-travel-plans-are-dancing-lessons-from-God, we accepted and thought, since we were in the neighbourhood, we might as well make it a long weekend and spend a couple of days in Canada’s capital city. As it turns out, Ottawa deserves the title “capital”, equally in the sense of “head city” and in the sense of an old English fellow smacking and rubbing his hands together with glee (“Capital!” *smack* *rub*, gin-and-tonics all round!). Ottawa is olde worlde, charming, and as colonial as they come. It made us thing of Europe and want to lounge about in pavement cafes. But back to the rafting for now.
A long way from the noise and dust of Toronto (and two weeks into a garbage workers strike!) we breathed in the fresh breeze squinted into the bright sunlight of the leafy northern suburbs, as we drove east and north into “Cottage Country”. I have heard it said that Toronto is not the real Canada but just another American city, and you could see where this view came from. Cottage Country is where the Canadians flee to during the summer, a land of hills and pine trees and lakes and flags on front porches. It is small-town and the great outdoors. It is where Canadians go to be Canadian, and where we were rafting.
The place we stayed at was fantastic – it had its own little beach on the banks of the huge Ottawa River, where lazing on the lawns or swimming or kayaking, you could see miles of forests lining the river, and little rocky islands adorned by single trees and the odd bather pausing for breath. On the far side of the river, we were impressed to see Quebec, which looks exactly the same, only the trees are les pines. That evening we enjoyed the sunset glowing on the lawns and cabins, before burgers off the barbeque and live music around the campfire.
The following morning, after a reasonable breakfast, making up for in volume what it lacked in cholesterol, we hit the water in our massive 12-man rafts which, we discover, go through rapids not entirely unlike a bloated yellow caterpillar with 12 thrashing legs. With tiny people in life jackets riding it*. So it wasn’t the most death-defying activity we’d ever experienced, but the scenery and the company more than made up for it. I got splashed a few times too, and the water wasn’t bad.
Food tastes better outdoors, and after swimming, so I really enjoyed the barbeque on the pontoon that floated us back to camp, with the rafts towing in a long procession behind us at the end of the day. A victory parade in honour of a good day and a t-shirt suntan.
When we left the camp to head west on the next leg of our trip (to Ottawa itself), we were that nice kind of tired you get after a really busy, fun day outdoors and a little too much sun. So were were not prepared for the Greyhound. Our ticket said “departing 6.49pm Cobden, arriving 8.50pm Ottawa”. Hmm. You can picture it right: small town, Sunday evening, standing at the Shell Garage, waiting. Thunder clouds roll ominously overhead. Oh yes. The bus eventually arrived in Cobden closer to 7.52pm, but not before the “scattered showers” which we thankfully missed that afternoon while rafting. Needless to say, we got to Ottawa in the end, and the Greyhound is really cheap, but I must admit that I was eyeing the roadside motel in Cobden and wondering if my bookings in Ottawa were refundable.
Ever been in Pietermaritzburg on a Monday night? Ottawa is exactly the same on a Sunday night – very quiet (although without litter and muggers). The answer to the question: “What can I do in Toronto on a Sunday night?” is pretty much “Whatever you damn well please”. This doesn’t apply to Ottawa, so we discovered. In fact, you could probably stroll quite safely down the main street in the altogether without anyone batting an eyelid, nor any eyelid being present to bat, for that matter. This leads to the bit I mentioned earlier, about how we came to spend two nights in jail.
The hostel we stayed in was an old jail.
That wasn’t as exciting as I thought it was going to be*. But at any rate, it was a really interesting place to stay, and you can find out more about here: http://www.carletoncountygaol.com/content/history/history.shtml. There was a ghost tour which rather freaked us out, and we ended up sleeping with the lights on.
The days were less haunting. We took two full days of running around to see a fraction of what there is is Ottawa. It is like a New World Europe – lots of history and charm, beautiful chateaux, a series of locks joining the Ottawa River with the man-made Rideau Canal, which winds among the cities parks and residential districts, and monuments to fallen heroes scattered here and there. The olde worlde charm was completed for us when we pretty much accidentally, but very luckily, ran into the changing of the guards parade on the way to parliament, complete with marching brass and pipe bands. The guards dressed in a manner reminiscent of the guards at Buckingham Palace (which is in London Eng-ge-land, for the American readers), of which Ottawa, for some strange reason, boasts a 1:4 scale model. So I am told, it was within these cramped quarters that presumably hunched-over inventors came up with some pretty useful stuff, including the zipper. (As I write this I realise it sounds absolutely ridiculous, so I’m not convinced my memory is accurate.)
The library of their parliament is beautiful and interesting, and is really worth having a look at. In fact, the whole city is pretty appealling visually, particularly from the river, from which we saw most of the city, in a guided boat tour. Parliament is elevated above the river on a forested cliff; to the left are the locks to the canal, and beyond that is the fairy-tale-like castle, Chateau Laurier, which is a rather pricey hotel.
We can boast now too that we have been to Quebec, which basically entails crossing the river. We elected to use the bridge apparently designed for this purpose, although for not much extra charge we could have elected to swim. Gatineau (aka Hull), which is the city across the river, is very French. Suddenly everything changes and nothing is in English. We went into a liquor store to see if anything was cheaper on the other side of the border, and it might have been for all I know, as the price-tags in Quebec are among the more complicated I have seen, but not as complicated as the traffic lights, which are oriented horizontally and appear to operate using various combinations of about 6 different colours (“mauve: turn left now if your original direction is along the north-south axis, but only if you are in the lane furthermost from the closest school bus”). But by far the best part about Gatineau, I thought, was the amazing view it affords of Ottawa.
We had a really nice time at the National Gallery back on the English side of the river, where they have literally thousands of excellent pieces of art, including a decent European collection which we both enjoyed.
Probably the worst part of the trip for me was not the Greyhound as you might expect, which more than redeemed itself with a comfortable and speedy ride home though some great Canadian outdoors (Les pines again, and rocks, and roadkill – more on the roadkill later), but was actually a street performer we encountered in the Byward Market. He was an Aussie and an aggressive believer in audience participation, which activated all my fears and superstitions about carnies, so we had to circumvent him by quite a way. Luckily the Aussies redeemed themselves a bit later, when our waiter at the pub redeemed his kin by being everything I enjoy about the Australians – direct, hospitable and giving me beer. Good grub too, and too much of it, in the appropriate manner.
On roadkill: this is apparently the chief way of spotting wildlife in Canada. We didn’t see a single live animal the entire time, which was upsetting to say the least. Hopefully, we will see some Canadian creatures this coming weekend, when we are going camping on Lake Erie for a long weekend. Fewer roads out there and, we are hoping, a lot more of Canada’s charm. I enjoy a regular dose of it.
Go to Ottawa if you get the chance. We’ll be going again in winter, when the canal freezes over and becomes the world’s longest skating rink!
— Barmy Andy
*I don’t know!